While archaeologist Dorothy Liddell is perhaps best remembered as Mary Leakey’s treasured mentor, she was an accomplished woman in her own right, and excavated several important British sites while being barred from formal training.
Before Dorothy Liddell would encounter Mary Leakey, her most famous protégé, she would become an active member in the English archaeological world. Even though she wasn’t a professional archaeologist, in 1929 Liddell was employed by the Devon Archaeological Society in order to conduct field research. The Society, which was founded in 1928, hoped to uncover the ancient mysteries of Dartmoor and Exmoor. These two areas of Devon — which are defined by rolling hills and vast grasslands — were home to ancient human activity and ripe for excavation when Liddell became involved.
In 1929, Liddell discovered ornamented pottery belonging to prehistoric Britain inhabitants in Windmill Hill, Avebury. The area has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to an agrarian society presumably around 3500 BC. Liddell’s excavation of the ornamented pottery was not merely an indication of an early culture at the site, but arguably the ability and intelligence of its people. Alongside the pottery was a small bird bone, which she suggested could serve as a stylus for decorating, seemingly representing complex tool-use.
Liddell documented her findings in Antiquity: “Sometimes the Gods are kind, and so they seemed one morning during last season’s excavations at Windmill Hill: when some minor official of that department which dispenses new ideas through such simple media as overflowing baths and falling apples, superintended the finding of a large quantity of fragments of ‘West Kennet’ type pottery, thickly ornamented with a clearly defined design and in the same layer-for this site singularly unproductive a small bird-bone.” Her eloquent words tell of one of the first women to be involved in notable excavation sites, an accomplishment that would lead her to Hembury and Mary Leakey.
A 17-year-old Mary Leakey gained some of her first archaeological training from Liddell at the Neolithic site in Hembury, Devon from 1930 to 1935. Leakey worked with Liddell and her team for three summers and trained with Liddell for four years. Liddell was a great inspiration to Leakey both as an archaeologist and as a woman. “She was an enormous help in training me, showing me how to dig properly and making it quite clear that females could go to the top of the tree,” Leakey said. Liddell saw Leakey’s talent and included her stone tool illustrations in her publications on Hembury. Liddell also showed Leakey’s illustrations to Gertrude Caton-Thompson, who would later introduce Mary to Louis Leakey. So one could say, Liddell helped start the love affair that was the greatest archaeological team in history.
Outside of the successes of Liddell and Leakey, the Hembury site proved to be significant in the larger archaeological world. Archaeologists originally believed the site to be of the Iron Age, but then Liddell discovered a framed entrance to a causewayed enclosure and an oval arrangement of postholes, suggesting that a fire that had destroyed the building. The finding indicated a Neolithic site and suggested that warfare had been a staple in prehistoric Britain. In addition to the enclosure, Liddell and Leakey uncovered more pottery identical to other sites, like Chassay and Fort Harrouard. Later in the 1960s, charcoal would also be discovered at the site and support their fire hypotheses. Liddell herself would later uncover more Iron Age sites, like huts predicted to have been occupied by the Romans at Choseley Farm, Odiham. Despite not being a professional archaeologist, Liddell made her mark in archaeological history. Her findings in Britain helped shed more light on the country’s prehistoric past. Liddell was highly regarded by her colleagues at the sites she excavated and for her discoveries.
Perhaps the best way to sum up Liddell’s work is to remember the influence she had on inspiring other women to pursue paleoanthropology. Her work inspired past female paleoanthropologists in the same way it will inspire the next generation. Liddell’s contributions to archaeology were visible during her time, but throughout history have become invisible. This is a loss, because Liddell was a true trowelblazer. She did not let the absence of a degree or training (something that kept so many women of the past from lives of work and academia) keep her from her prehistoric passions. In the 1930s her strength as a woman and talent as an archaeologist made her a dynamic role model and integral to the archaeological field.
Written by Maia Erickson, Katie Bieser, Claudia Seidenberg, and Audrey Piehl for the course “Gender and Human Evolution”, taught by Caroline VanSickle and published as part of the Women in Paleoanthropology special collection.
In true TrowelBlazers fashion, we had a long, hard search for images of Dorothy Liddell, who seemed to have so many connections but very few images. Finally, we were able to contact the Hampshire Cultural Trust, who in turn discovered that they had a veritable trove of Liddell’s material. David Allen graciously provided us with this image, Dorothy Liddell in the background writing in her notebook at the Lodge Farm site while a team member works in the fore. They are now in the process of digitizing their entire collection of material relating to Dorothy Liddell as a result.